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Ilya Kovalchuk #17 of the New Jersey Devils skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Prudential Center on February 5, 2010 in Newark, New Jersey. (Jim McIsaac/2010 Getty Images)
Ilya Kovalchuk #17 of the New Jersey Devils skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Prudential Center on February 5, 2010 in Newark, New Jersey. (Jim McIsaac/2010 Getty Images)

Eric Duhatschek

NHL calls New Jersey's bluff Add to ...

In the morning, it was all sweetness and light around the Rock - the Prudential Center, home of the New Jersey Devils. There was Ilya Kovalchuk, who had just signed a staggering 17-year, $102-million (all currency U.S.) contract to stay on with the Devils, talking about his lavish new contract that will pay him a reasonable $6-million per year for two years, jumps to $11.5-million for the next five and then finishes with a bunch of $500,000 seasons near the NHL minimum that no one figured he'd play.

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It was all, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, nothing to see here; no attempt to circumvent the salary cap, just working within the rules as we (the Devils) interpreted them.

Even Kovalchuk managed a weak joke Tuesday, saying he expected to play out the full 17 years of the deal, which would take him to the age of 44, or around the time that every player this side of Chris Chelios is comfortably retired and enjoying the fruits of their years of labour.

By nightfall, of course, everything had changed. TSN first reported that the league had rejected the terms of the Kovalchuk deal for salary-cap circumvention. Good for them too, for seeing the contract for what it was and essentially asking the team and the player to go back and work it out differently, in a manner more in keeping with what the salary cap is supposed to mean in the so-called "new" NHL.

For years now, teams have played around the edges of the collective bargaining agreement, which technically permits contracts to be heavily front-loaded, provided they don't completely drop off the face of the earth at some point in their term, which by definition, is 80 per cent year over year.

The league previously investigated the terms of Chris Pronger's deal with the Philadelphia Flyers, Roberto Luongo's deal with the Vancouver Canucks and Marian Hossa's deal with the Chicago Blackhawks. Nothing ever came of the investigations, however, and so the contracts were approved, albeit reluctantly and without much enthusiasm.

It was a CBA loophole and teams pushed the envelope, but never too hard - never wanting to anger the powers that be, which in this case, consist of commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

Daly, incidentally, was one of the key architects of the CBA, negotiating its terms with former NHLPA executive director Ted Saskin.

Daly is also one of those rare types that actually expected teams to honour the spirit of the agreement, which was to try and even the playing field a little between the NHL's haves and have-nots.

It was clear from two days of NHL silence on the matter that they were unhappy with how the Devils and general manager Lou Lamoriello, Kovalchuk and agent Jay Grossman drove a sledgehammer right through the heart of the CBA with the roller-coaster terms of this contract. This was an egregious violation, in their eyes; and the next step was clearly going to be the 50-year contract, with the final 30 years coming in at the league minimum to lower the overall salary average.

At some point, the NHL decided to draw a line in the sand and it just happened to be this time, right now. It doesn't mean the Devils and Kovalchuk's happy marriage cannot go forward. It just means it cannot go forward as the contract is currently structured.

Lamoriello was asked hard questions about the terms of the deal at Monday's press conference. Usually, the Hall Of Fame executive answers most questions bluntly, and with little evasiveness. But when asked why he structured the deal the way he did - and was a 17-year commitment the wave of the future? - he hedged in a meaningful way.

Lamoriello's exact answer was: "First of all, I still firmly believe that it's all about the team and in conversations with Mr. Vanderbeek (Jeff, the team's chairman and managing partner), with free agency at the age that it's at, this was an opportunity for our organization to get a player of his calibre, where we've never had that opportunity to draft at that given time in this new era.

"We've been fortunate with the players we have drafted and the successes they've had … These are all players that have won and continue to win. This opportunity sometimes doesn't come around. It was an organizational decision.

"Whether it's an exception or a norm, I don't look at anything like that. I look at it - that's the decision at hand at this given time."

Now, of course, the two sides need to go back to the drawing board. Chances are, they'll still work something out, but it will unlikely be as attractive to the organization, or to Kovalchuk for that matter, when the deal gets re-cast to satisfy the NHL.

A day ago, I hedged my assessment of the Kovalchuk contract by writing, "assuming the NHL approves the deal." This one smelled: I wondered if the NHL would play ball with the Devils, or challenge them hard. Maybe we all assumed too much, and that the NHL would roll over again, which is presumably why the Devils and Kovalchuk felt they could challenge the NHL's backbone, which they showed they had this time in a serious, meaningful way. Stay tuned. The fun is just getting started; can't wait to see how it plays out from here.

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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